Empower Q&A: Elena Aguilar on emotional resiliency


As ASCD gears up for Empower20: The Conference for Learning, Teaching, and Leading Together March 13-16 in Los Angeles, Inservice is publishing a series of Q&As to preview the wide range of featured speakers presenting.

By Laura Varlas

Featured session: Keynote Luncheon, Cultivating Resilience in Educators

Session time: Saturday, March 14, 2020 Noon to 1:30 p.m.

Session description: Burnout and teacher turnover are prevalent and pervasive across the United States. As school leaders seek to fill vacant positions and retain qualified staff, there are also a set of daily habits that educators can cultivate that will boost their resilience. These habits are tried and tested and can be incorporated into staff professional development. In this keynote based on the author’s most recent book, Onward: Cultivating Resilience in Educators, the presenter will provide practical strategies for improving resilience as well as a compelling case for why school leaders should focus on resilience.

Emotional resilience is the ability to bounce back after a setback and to thrive, not just survive, in the midst of challenges. Emotional resilience rests upon strong emotional intelligence: to be resilient, you must recognize what you’re feeling and have strategies to respond to and engage with those emotions. Coaching expert Elena Aguilar spoke with ASCD about some practical ways educators can build their skillset for emotional resilience and why this work is essential to the future of education. 

What sparked your interest in this topic?

Elena Aguilar: I had been a teacher for many years and dealt with the routine ups and downs that all teachers go through and managed them with the limited set of tools that I had. When I became a coach and witnessed teachers having those same struggles, I realized how depleting emotional stress can be and how much it was undermining teachers’ ability to help kids. It became very glaring to me, in coaching teachers, there was no way we could just focus on instruction, curriculum, pedagogy without also addressing emotions and resilience.

What are some of the misconceptions about emotional resilience?

EA: It’s really important to start off with definitions. Anytime someone uses the word resilience, I ask, “What do you mean by that?” Same goes for the word “equity.” If you’re going to use it, I want a really sharp definition. Because one of the things I push back on is the concept of “grit” and resilience when it’s removed from context and conditions. Resilience is about how you interpret events and in some ways, your attitude. But it’s more than just your attitude. It’s not just be confident and grateful and everything will be great! There’s a context and condition to consider. In a toxic environment, even the most resilient person will get physically ill. I think we need to name those larger systems in which we live and work and acknowledge the way those undermine our resilience.

In your session, you’ll provide practical strategies for improving resilience among educators. Can you give an example of one of those strategies?

EA: A very simple strategy for cultivating emotional resilience is the ability to pause between an event and your response to it. In that gap, ask yourself: “What’s the story I’m telling myself about this thing that’s just happened?”

For example, I’ve recently been in conversation with a teacher who is really frustrated with students coming to class late. Her energy is being critically drained because, in her mind, she’s translating this as: “They don’t respect me.” And that’s what’s undermining her resilience. It’s not that kids are coming to class late; it’s the way that she is interpreting their behavior that’s going to lead to burnout. If we can intervene there, in the stories that we tell, the mindset that we walk around in, we can have a much greater impact on resilience.

A complementary strategy to pausing and identifying the story we’re telling is to also identify and name the emotions that arise. (“I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” “I feel scared.”) If we cultivated our ability to recognize and accept our emotions, we’d be in a different place in our schools. When I see the stereotypical cranky, resistant teacher, I see someone who hasn’t been allowed or offered the opportunity to express their emotions. And when I talk to them, what comes out is that they are sad, they feel unseen, and they are afraid. If they can identify and name these underlying emotions, and be seen and heard by someone else, it changes things.

What’s one way leaders can cultivate emotional resilience in their teachers?

EA: Leaders can learn how to ask questions and offer suggestions that invite teachers to examine their mindset, perhaps shifting it to a more empowering one. If a teacher is really frustrated about something, get them to pause and identify the story that they’re telling themselves and the emotions they’re feeling. Sometimes that’s all a leader needs to do to catalyze some of the resilient skillsets in their teachers and their communities.

Why is cultivating emotional resilience in educators so important right now?

EA: We deserve happiness, joy, and meaningful, purposeful work. We deserve to feel good when we go to work; and, the more resilience we amass, the more energy we’ll have to start dismantling some of the systems of oppression under which we—and our kids—suffer.

There’s a connection between creating more just and equitable schools and building our resilience, and it can’t be disentangled. We only exist in community with others. When we’re in communities with others who are suffering, it’s our responsibility to do something. But we can’t do something if we’re depleted and exhausted.

Responses edited for length and clarity.

Elena Aguilar (@brightmorningtm) is the founder and president of Bright Morning Consulting and the author of Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators (Wiley & Sons, 2018). She presents “Cultivating Resilience in Educators” at the ASCD Empower20 conference in Los Angeles, Calif. This keynote luncheon will be held on Saturday, March 14, from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Get more details and register at http://empower.ascd.org/program/featured-sessions.aspx#KL3.